When secondary students think about collaboration on the Internet, it might mean spreading news about a party using Facebook, or spending a night battling in StarCraft with players across the continent. Throw the word “education” into the mix and they think about finding the website from which the teacher copied the last physics worksheet in order to locate the answers (or at least an explanation of how to solve the problems). They might agree to split their assigned novel among a small group of friends. Then, they exchange plot and character notes so that nobody has to read more than one hundred pages. The tendency is to see the Internet as a place from which they can glean information or comment as they please. However, even “digital natives” often flounder when it is their responsibility to start up or maintain an active collaboration on-line for a class.
Collaborative learning has long been held forth as a force to help students to move into new areas of critical thinking that they cannot master on their own.  Despite the increasing amount of hours spent on-line, students often seem to lack expertise, or desire to work in a group over the Internet. Their reluctance to do this seems to be for the same reasons many dislike group work in class. They may feel they have little control over the quality of the end product; they worry about having to do more work to make up for a lazy class mate; or the sometimes coordination and time required is just too much trouble.
Having taken college courses both in classrooms and on-line, I found that there were subtle advantages to direct human interaction when one must collaborate. Being able to read facial expressions, tone of voice and provide immediate feedback help reduce repetitive instructions. Expressing complex, creative ideas that were not easily comprehended was difficult in on-line chat and boards, so most people did not try to do this. Students repeated catch phrases that were light on real content. Many of the posts were so very similar that there seemed to be little point in reading them all. Even “private” e-mails and chat tended to have carefully thought out, conformist tone. Instructors required that students contribute to on-line discussions boards, otherwise many students who were talkative in class would be silent on an electronic interface.
Collaborative learning on the Internet may not be spontaneous, but creative sharing and learning can still exist. The instructor has to consciously plan to get students to buy into this. What does this require?
- Structuring courses so that on-line collaboration is integral part of learning
- Determine appropriate group size for various collaborative activities
- Using software that enables student communication without too steep of a learning curve
- Providing data-bases of information to keep students from wandering aimlessly on the web
- Setting up guidelines for appropriate on-line community behavior.
- Modeling on-line community behavior as an instructor by vigilant reviewing and feedback.
Use of the Internet is not a “magic bullet” to ensure learning, but a new medium for transmitting information. The instructor must be aware of how it alters the way students learn to use it effectively.
“It may seem trivial to say that a medium has no effect in general, but the history of educational technology shows that every new technology (television, computers, hypertexts, multimedia, Internet, virtual reality, …) raise a wave of naive expectations regarding to the intrinsic effects of these technologies.”